The South China Sea is one of the world's most heavily trafficked shipping routes and believed to have major untapped natural energy deposits. Territorial disputes involve both Islands and Maritime claims involving several countries including in addition to China, Brunei, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. The conflicting claims over strategically and economically important South China Sea blocks attempts of China to normalise its relations with Southeast Asian nations.

China, for the past few years, is seen to have been expanding its area of influence in the South China Sea by claiming territory that was previously considered international or owned by other countries. After an international tribunal in the Hague ruled explicitly against China in its territorial dispute with the Philippines.

The notable areas of focus include two groups of islands: the Paracels and the Spratlys. China has built artificial islands on seven features of the Spratlys and is building facilities on these islands which will be used for military or civilian purposes. This year, China completed its construction of three air strips in the Spratly Islands (on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef) which became operational in July. Three lighthouses have also been built in the Spratlys, possibly as “capability to identify where aircraft and ships are located so they (China) can triangulate using these radars and have a better picture of what is happening in virtually every corner of the South China Sea” With US ship days seemingly on the rise (from 700 last year) alongside these steps made by China towards intensifying its potency in the region; this year the dispute does not appear to be on its way to being resolved.

The Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Rules of Behaviour for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters signed by China and the US in 2014 stipulates rules of conduct for ships and aircraft when operating near. These procedures have, for the most part, been adhered to and so an outbreak of war seems unlikely. With the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, one cannot rule out that while conducting a Freedom of Navigation Operation that there could be some challenge to the United States from maritime militia or coastguard or even naval vessels and aircraft; there could certainly be an accident.